Chinese President Xi Jinping has finally visited Wuhan, ground zero of the still-unfolding pneumonic plague, reportedly spending less than 10 hours in the virus-ravaged central Chinese city on Tuesday, before flying back to Beijing in the evening.
Xi’s belated inspection of Wuhan has exposed him to sharp jabs from his foes within the Communist Party, more than 100 days after mysterious infections cropped up in the megacity of more than 10 million at the end of 2019. Xi’s inaction could be due to cover-ups by local cadres, which played a key role in incubating the viral outbreak that has spilled over to the rest of the nation.
Reporters with state media told Asia Times on condition of anonymity that Xi’s whirlwind visit only lasted for a little over nine hours. After touching down at Wuhan’s airport, he was whisked off to a local hospital in a limo fitted with top-grade antiviral and biohazard gear.
The top leader, who was not seen for much of February, the height of China’s war on the rampaging pandemic caused by a novel, highly infectious coronavirus, greeted a group of carefully vetted medical professionals and patients via video. The meeting took place in a “clean” room in Huoshenshan Hospital, which was built in 10 days for the centralized treatment of those suffering from severe symptoms.
Wearing an N95 mask (which is in short supply in the country) that can filter out 95% of airborne viruses, Xi met in person a few people said to be representatives of the doctors and nurses working at the hospital before he left.
To gauge the mood in a city that has been locked down since January 23, Xi and members of his retinue, including a deputy premier and Hubei’s provincial party chief, offered to talk to local residents and frontline workers.
It was revealed that local authorities had dispatched plainclothes and special duty officers to every household in the residential quarter to be visited by Xi, and deployed snipers on rooftops of all buildings in the vicinity.
These layers of security were precautions to ensure Xi’s safety as well as prevent him from losing face. Last week Deputy Premier Sun Chunlan was embarrassed by hecklers as she inspected a separate location in the city. Residents frustrated by the lack of available food and restrictions on their freedom yelled “everything is fake” as Sun passed by.
Thus local officials had to take special measures to prevent a repeat of that disastrous scene when Xi was in town. They ordered officers to guard the balconies and windows facing Xi’s route and muzzle any malcontents that could potentially embarrass Xi.
In fact, cadres had been given a script for guidance as Xi sought to burnish his visage in Wuhan, highlighting his concern for the people and his approachable demeanor. As the nation watched, he attempted to restore his image after being criticized for his handling of the response to the crisis.
Before Xi was escorted to the airport and flown back to Beijing in the evening, he convened a meeting with senior cadres and hailed the sacrifice made by the people of Wuhan during the ongoing lockdown.
Critics have compared his performance with that of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who had the courage to visit pandemic-hit cities in Guangdong during the early stages of the SARS crisis in 2003. Xi, on the other hand, has been accused of shirking his duty, choosing to go into seclusion for the better part of February when leadership was needed to combat the epidemic.
State media, nonetheless, has talked up Xi’s visit as a “momentous event” to buoy the spirits of people in Wuhan.
Yet the fact is that the contagion in Wuhan has shown signs of lulling since the end of last month and it only added 13 fresh cases to the total of 49,978 on Wednesday, with no new infections throughout the rest of Hubei, according to official data.
“He dared not to visit Wuhan and was nowhere to be seen during the outbreak, but now he flies to the city for a lame PR show now that everyone knows the city is halfway out of the crisis,” read a post on Twitter.
Yet some observers say the fact that Xi did not spend the night in Wuhan on a trip that appeared to be hastily arranged could also be an indication that the contagion situation there is worse than is being reported, with the risk of a relapse still lurking.
The warning is partially borne out by a U-turn by the municipal government of Qianjiang, a prefecture-level city of a million residents that borders Wuhan. On Wednesday, officials there revoked a previous note about relaxation of a ban on travel and social gatherings in the city.